The pervasive influence of drug cartels in Mexico is, by now, a fixture in the media and public imagination. Since the beginning of Felipe Calderón’s tenure as President of Mexico, his administration has taken a more aggressive stance against the Mexican drug cartels. During Calderón’s presidency there has been increased violence especially in the cities that border the US, infiltration of drug cartels into the army and other government agencies. On the bright side, there have been notable arrests, including most recently that of cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva (who was killed during the bust) and his brother Carlos.
However, of growing concern is the potential danger of drug cartels penetrating Mexican politics.
In a previous blog post I mentioned that in a conversation I had with the former head of the Mexican Federal Electoral Institute (just months before he assumed that position), he justified why Mexico should have a political finance system largely dependent on public funds (i.e., coming from taxpayers). He argued that a system like the US, which is more reliant on private contributions, would be dangerous because of the potential infiltration of drug traffickers into politics. (As a point of clarification, Mexico’s political financing does indeed rely heavily on public funds, as was the case in 2003 when I had the aforementioned conversation, and for many years before that.)
A recent in-depth piece* by the Mexican newspaper Reforma published January 10, 2010 highlights some reforms that could help prevent drug cartels from inserting themselves in Mexico’s electoral system. In early December a roundtable discussion about the challenge of illegal financing in politics (in Spanish, “La democracia en una encrucijada: El reto del financiamiento ilícito de la política”) was held at “Los Pinos” — the Mexican President’s Office — organized by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among the participants in this discussion were a former auditor general of Argentina, a former Vice-President of Colombia, the founder of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, a former Corruption Prosecutor of Spain, and other international experts. Various recommendations were presented. However these were apparently not heeded since Calderón introduced in mid-December a bill to the Mexican congress which entailed many political reforms except for the measures that were suggested at this discussion. Reforma interviewed some of these experts for their in-depth piece.
The political reforms introduced by Calderón might not be bad, but they address other issues and won’t do too much to prevent the potential entry of drug money into Mexican elections. Among the reforms proposed by the Calderón administration are: enabling the consecutive reelection of mayors, federal and state representatives for up to 12 years; eliminating party-list proportional representation senators; establishing run-off elections for president; allowing CSOs to propose bills to congress; and enabling the Judicial Branch to introduce bills related to their competence.
So, besides having a political finance system more reliant on public funding, what additional related measures should be implemented in the Mexican context? This is what the roundtable experts recommended:
- A campaign finance reform that imposes harsher penalties on offenders, especially when exceeding campaign expenditures limits. Carlos Jiménez, a former Corruption Prosecutor of Spain, says that the existing penalties are not as effective since political parties keep exceeding the expenditures limits. Sanctions must be also imposed to the party that receives the donations, but also to the individual or corporation that makes them.
- Reduce campaign expenditure limits. Higher limits create the temptation to resort to illegal contributions to finance political campaigns.
- Clear rules that strengthen the autonomy of the election monitoring agencies. The 2009 Mexico GI Report [coming soon] is consistent with this analysis, changes in the leadership of the Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral — IFE) show the vulnerability of this agency to political whims, reinforcing its autonomy would prevent politicians from tinkering with this institute when they are not happy with it. Furthermore, the election agencies can’t do all the work, there has to be cooperation with prosecutors and other government agencies investigating money laundering.
- Strengthen the auditing and oversight of political financing, especially at the state and municipal level. Humberto de la Calle, former Vice-President of Colombia, mentions that the Mexican government and institutions are not completely unprepared since they have some tools at their disposal, but the main weaknesses lie at the state and municipal level.
- Reorganize complex systems of electoral organizations. Elena Panfilova, the founder of the Russian chapter of Transparency International, finds that too many electoral agencies (as she observes in Mexico) may be counterproductive. She recommends possibly eliminating some of them because, according to her, the multiplicity of agencies may be very expensive and produce results that have very little impact to Mexican citizens. She suggests that a public and transparent debate should be conducted on this issue.
- Citizen involvement, mostly by voicing displeasure with electoral infractions and violations. Experts argue that passiveness or indifference will not put this issue in the spotlight, therefore it is necessary for citizens to condemn electoral violations because they essentially jeopardize democracy.
- Finally, international cooperation is crucial. Drug trafficking is a transnational phenomenon, money flows travel across countries, and consequently cooperation with foreign agencies is critical to track and prevent the flow of drug money into Mexican politics.
So while strengthening the Federal Electoral Institute is key, as mentioned earlier, this should be conducted in tandem with efforts to strengthen the electoral agencies at the state level as well since they may very well be the weakest links. So the answer doesn’t just lie with the federal organization, cooperation and coordination between the electoral agencies and other government bodies is necessary to protect Mexican politics from drug money.
Some of these recommendations may be more appropriate for Mexico, but some could be applied to prevent illegal flows of money from organized crime in to political campaigns and parties in other countries.
— Renato Busquets
— Mexico City image by kainet (cc: by sa).
Martínez, Martha. “Narco poder: tema para la reforma política.” Reforma, January 10, 2010, Enfoque section.